David Hall: Shifting power

by David Hall / 21 February, 2013
Who better to understand conflict and development than Helen Clark?
Robert Mankoff cartoon

“By the way, what’s your position on some-sex marriage?” /Cartoon by Robert Mankoff / The New Yorker Collection.

For all its quaint aloofness, Oxford is a highly connected place. Only the other week I overheard a posh-accented man on his phone say, “No, I do role-plays … with the Foreign Secretary.” I also saw Helen Clark speak recently at the Oxford Martin School, in her role as head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

It is one of politics’ top jobs and she owns it, emitting that sense of smouldering authority most New Zealanders are familiar with (some overly familiar). She’s proof, perhaps, that it’s easier to go from Labour leadership to the UN than the other way around. Her review of the UNDP’s guiding principles was commanding but measured, echoing the current “common sense” among experts that it’s best to approach big issues like conflict and development from the bottom up, focusing on such problems as youth unemployment and education for women.

It was no victory for rhetorical flair, then, no match for David Lange’s famous address to the Oxford Union almost 30 years ago, but this simply speaks to their political talents. And it was Clark, let it be remembered, who turned electoral defeat into a job promotion, into an expansion of power.

  • More poor figures for Britain: depressing news for a depressed economy. Youth unemployment is expected to reach a million in the coming months, and contraction over the last financial quarter has raised fears of a triple-dip recession. The Conservative Government has latched onto recent business-confidence figures that suggest this might not happen, but if this is the good news, that Britain will wobble around zero, then it’s a drastic revision of last decade’s great expectations. The mood on austerity appears to have shifted accordingly, from stiff-lipped acceptance to increasing scepticism. Even Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and the country’s favourite Tory, has called for his colleagues, wonderfully, to abandon “the hair shirt, Stafford Cripps agenda”. There is an appetite, it seems, for a new direction.

  • Unfortunately, debate has been conducted largely in economics. This is unfortunate because economists contradict one another completely, clashing in both diagnosis and remedy. Who to believe? Most folk are simply shut out of the debate, gawping from the sidelines while the experts bicker over inflation, interest rates and statistics. But economics isn’t the only way to talk about politics. Ethics is another. And yet another is political aesthetics, where we ask how a society looks, sounds and feels. The horsemeat scandal, for instance, has left a bad taste in many mouths. The 2011 riots in London and elsewhere were also a clear case of ugly. One year on, though, the UK revealed a prettier side, with its Olympics “tolerant”, neat and quietly camp. If economists can’t agree, a nation could do worse than get this stuff right, in the hope that bigger things fall into place.

  • I love scouring London for new music. You get a sense of how quickly culture evolves here, how esoteric sounds can suddenly blossom when they resonate with something bigger. The last recessions in Britain saw the rise of punk and rave culture. Now a certain strain of electronic music is seizing the moment, an ominous fusion of industrial techno and post-punk by artists such as Perc, Andy Stott, Blawan, Factory Floor, Raime and Haxan Cloak. This is the place where art and political aesthetics overlap, and I’m not alone in sensing its vitality: a Guardian reviewer recently dubbed this “a soundtrack for our times”. Not to everyone’s taste, to be sure, but that must be the point. This is music to escape to, to dance away another long, dark night.

David Hall is a NZ doctoral researcher in political theory at the University of Oxford.
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